Private Road: In Retrospect

First published on Little White Lies (October 18 2010) //

As if a companion piece to Bronco Bullfrog, with both films sharing the youthful struggle for social and personal freedom, British filmmaker Barney Platts-Mills released his second feature Private Road in 1971, transporting the focus of frustrated youth from working-class East London to middle-class Surrey.

At a recent Q&A session after a screening of his second minimalist masterpiece, Platts-Mills revealed he made the film “on an extremely low budget, to show how it can be done.” What he produced was highly influential, not only shaping the future work of its lead, Bruce Robinson, but also independent cinema in general, both in its style and its attitude, as a way of making meaningful art without the big money, false emotions or bureaucracy.

Private Road opens with a perfectly suited introduction which is beautifully demonstrative of the kind of film that follows. Stephen (Michael Feast) strums his raspy guitar and sings a song, an original song, about making it on your own without unnecessary comforts, and making it on your own terms. The whole soundtrack is played, sung and composed by Feast, who is reminiscent of a solo Syd Barrett, and just as original, to give some idea of his skill. Towards the end of the opening song Stephen, best friend of main protagonist Peter (a young Robinson), delivers a look directly into camera; a look likely to strike different viewers in different ways, but nevertheless is a look that sums up the freewheeling spontaneity that Platts-Mills utilises to create an authentic piece of cinema.

The breaking down of the fourth wall was something also being explored around the same time by British filmmaker Peter Watkins, using the look to camera as a way of bringing in the audience, of making it less a voyeuristic and distant exercise but one that is an involving and inclusive form of expression. Watkins refers to the fourth wall as the “the elitist barrier in films that acts as a separation between actor and viewer, and between filmmaker and viewer. For me, this wall represents a kind of security blanket for filmmakers, which allows them not to acknowledge the audience as participants in the media process.”

And all of this fits in with the personal subject matter of the film, the tender relationships between two young people and their friends in the 1970s, amongst weed and heroin, amongst political upheaval and revolutionary ideas. It is very much an open film, honest and ingenuous, often in such a way that it wittily and acerbically shows up those with delusions of self-importance. Ann (Susan Penhaligon) is a receptionist at a literary agency, she is gripped by a profound ennui, her job slowly destroys her will to do anything with her life as she lives at home with her controlling, bourgeois parents in Escher, Surrey.

Early on she meets Peter, a young writer who enters the office one day and immediately begins flirting with her. Peter is a client at the agency and has sold a few pieces to a well known women’s magazine. His success has been limited and he is quite given to posturing. He has also just finished his first novel and expects a glowing response and an acceptance for publication from his typically ornate agent. While he waits for her to read it, he goes out with Ann, they smoke together with his two housemates Stephen and Henry (George Fenton), they drink and enjoy the bohemian lifestyle of going nowhere but having supposedly intelligent conversation while you do it.

Strikingly, there are many scenes directly lifted from Private Road and dropped into Withnail & I, even the plot of the failing artist getting away to the countryside is repeated in Bruce Robinson’s cult favourite. Here instead of Lake District, Peter and Ann decide to drive away to Scotland to live amongst nature in a small cottage for a few days, though if anything, going away to the hills reveals only the emptiness in their silences. There is even a little Withnail-style fun with a shotgun to be had, chasing hares and shooting air.

According to Platts-Mills, Robinson was actively taking notes and rehearsing for Withnail & I during filming, and there are even strong hints of Robinson’s satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising, as Peter and Ann return to the city, clashing with Ann’s parents, particularly her father, with Peter eventually taking a job at an advertising agency after giving up on his failed career, promising to himself and saying to Stephen that he will write in the evenings. But of course, he loses the will to do much else but work, which even he realises is rotting him.

The scenes shift from domestic life to work life seamlessly, reflecting Peter’s hollowed out existence buried in tedium. And it’s in the rapport that Peter has with Stephen that the film shows a further working together of strong talents. Though not originally cast in the role of Peter, Robinson was brought in by his friend Feast and immediately understood the subtleties of the role. And when they converse, the dialogue is usually sharp, cutting to the truth and saying more with less. Glances are exchanged, and as in Bronco Bullfrog, nods and awkward smiles deliver more genuine feeling than any longwinded modern drama. We also get the solid companionship of two actual friends, much like in Withnail & I where a lot of improvisation works to a positive end, and a progression from films like Shadows by John Cassavetes, with this and Platts-Mills’ style going on to become a kind of precursor to the current mumblecore marriage of comedy and drama.

Though Platts-Mills has made only two films since 1971, working in television whilst trying his hardest to avoid the Hollywood system (which he despises for its superficiality and feeble attitude toward creative filmmaking), he is a major proponent of the Portobello Pop-Up, a newly established non-profit “Microplex (as opposed to Multiplex) cinema and arts venue” showing independent and lesser-seen films on Blu-ray and other digital technologies. It is this campaign against “expensive filmmaking and the industry as it is” that found its roots in early work such as Private Road that can return real filmmaking to those who know what it can mean.

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